Suja and Sinchang

The last week and a half have been some of the most rewarding, stressful, and transformative days in my life. I’ve had more cups of naja (milk tea) than I can count, sat on many bamboo-woven mats on wood floors, climbed the stairs of Bhutanese homes, cuddled cats, watched a farmer chop up yak meat, and conducted a total of 73 semi-structured interviews and two key informant interviews. Yesterday I was served a full lunch by a Bhutanese family who were having a puja in their home (a ritual blessing and cleansing). I sat on the floor with my translator, Kinley, and was immediately served naja, a full plate of red rice, and cow’s cheese that was the consistency of cottage cheese, as well as curd, which is actually delicious. So much dairy! Kinley was also served potatoes and meat, which I obviously did not eat. It was an enjoyable, filling meal, and they kept offering more and more – Have some more rice! More cheese! More curd! It’s hard to turn down when they have invited you into their home and have provided more hospitality, unquestioned and un-asked-for, than almost anyone has offered you in America.

(We actually ended up going back to that house later in the afternoon to interview someone else. As you might have guessed, we were offered more – this time suja (butter tea, quite a drink) and sinchang, which is one of the traditional Bhutanese homemade alcohols (the others are ara and banchang). I probably drank two cups of sinchang and three of suja, which was not much, given how forceful the sweet old lady was who kept offering more, almost refusing to accept my protests of No, no, no, karinchela, I can’t drink any more straight butter or homemade alcohol! Karinche but no!)

I am now an expert on Bhutanese hospitality – it’s better than anything else!

The interviews are conducted by my friend Brad and I. We each have our own set of questions, but we ask them during one interview so we don’t bother people twice. During the last two days we conducted 41 interviews (!!!) because we split up with one translator each. We have conducted so many interviews (we will probably have 80 by the time we’re finished collecting data on Tuesday) that faculty and staff have started telling us that people have written theses for Masters programs based on fewer interviews. Whoa! We are both very excited about these data, and have high hopes for the final papers that are due next week.

These last two days we were in Duhr, which is a rather large, sprawling village (meaning a bit more than 80 houses) about an hour north of UWICE. It’s a fascinating place – a community of nomadic yak herders and cordyceps collectors, many of whom only live there for part of the year. Most people seemed a lot wealthier than many of the villagers I met in Tang. Some had couches, many houses were bigger, newer, cleaner… children seemed to have more time to play, and some families didn’t even do much during the entire year except for the very busy few months in early summer when they make the dangerous journey (three days north) to collect the illusive and incredibly lucrative Ophiocordyceps sinensis. Cordyceps is a fungus that grows parasitically on a certain caterpillar, and takes several years to mature. They are found mainly in Tibet, but also Nepal and Bhutan. The market for cordyceps is large and profitable, and continuing to grow. It’s considered to be an aphrodisiac in Traditional Chinese Medicine, and has other purported health properties as well.

Every year, the Bhutanese government gives a certain number of permits to people (especially those who already live in districts that have cordyceps, like Gasa and Bumthang) so they can legally collect cordyceps during the early summer. It is a fairly regulated industry and market in Bhutan, but not so much in Nepal or Tibet. But the financial benefits are obvious – these cordyceps collectors are doing well, even though life is still hard, especially in such a cold and mountainous place as Duhr. The village is nestled on a mountainside and looks out, farther north, at craggy summits that are covered in snow. Highland meadows stretch above the village, which is where the yak herders keep their yaks while they are living in Duhr.

I asked a villager about wildlife in the area, and learned that tigers live a little farther north, but then again, who knows? – He suddenly contradicted himself and said that villagers have seen tiger pugmarks nearby. And there are bear attacks in the village. They are very much living among these animals.

As I said at the beginning of this post – it has been a wild week. More later, once DR fieldwork is officially over.

I will leave you with this photo of my view right now.

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Punakha

Sorry it’s been so long! We’ve been back at UWICE since Sunday evening, and we’re all working hard on preparation for Directed Research (DR – which I will talk more about in my next post).

Until then, enjoy some photographs I took during our time in Punakha and Gasa!

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Punakha puppy

 

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Gasa Dzong

 

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Gasa Dzong

 

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Gasa Dzong

 

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Gasa Dzong

 

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Jigme Dorji National Park – the Mochhu River

 

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Punakha

 

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Punakha agriculture

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Punakha’s Buddhist nunnery

 

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The view from the nunnery

 

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A Bumthang Farm

On Friday we went on a FEX (field exercise) to a farm in nearby Tang valley. It was, as you can see from the pictures below, absolutely picturesque.

We have been learning about food security and self-sufficiency in Bhutan recently, and this visit put a face to what we have been learning about the complex dynamics between native land use and agriculture, international development money and agricultural schemes, and the tension between locally-grown organic food and imported, processed food.

We spoke with the farmer, with the help of our professor as interpreter, and heard about his own experience being a “progressive farmer” in the area – meaning he has accepted Swiss brown cows (which produce more milk than the indigenous breed of cow) from the Swiss Development Agency and he has joined a honeybee cooperative through which he sells his honey.

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The vegetable garden

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Chillies!

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A butter churn – the first one I’ve ever seen in real life

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Our professor (right) speaking with the Bumthap farmer

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The family also makes ara, which is a traditional alcoholic beverage consumed in Bhutan. This is one of our SFS/UWICE staff, Rinchen, demonstrating how they make ara.

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Tsechu Season

Jakar Tsechu

Jakar Tsechu

Jakar Tsechu

Jakar Tsechu

Jakar Tsechu

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Jakar Tsechu

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The tents of Jakar Tsechu

The tents of Jakar Tsechu

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Jakar Tsechu: Day 2

Jakar Tsechu: Day 2

Jakar Tsechu: Day 2

Jakar Tsechu: Day 2

Jakar Tsechu: Day 2

Jakar Tsechu: Day 2

Jakar Tsechu: Day 2

Jakar Tsechu: Day 2

Jambay Lhakhang Tsechu

Jambay Lhakhang Tsechu

Jambay Lhakhang Tsechu

Jambay Lhakhang Tsechu

Jambay Lhakhang Tsechu

Jambay Lhakhang Tsechu

Random facts!

Hi everyone!

This post will be filled with random facts about Bhutan that I hope will be enjoyable to read. There have been so many funny, sweet, moving, and odd experiences over the last month, and I’d love to share some of them with you. So bear with me – this post will bounce around a lot.

First of all, the Bhutanese royal family (which has ruled the country since 1907) has the last name Wangchuck. The interesting thing about this name is that most Bhutanese don’t have a familial last name. Bhutanese can have pretty much any combination of names, and from one to three names. So you can be named Pema Choden, Kunzang Pema, Sonam Sengye Kencho, or even just Rinchen. But you probably won’t have the same last name as your parents. And getting back to Wangchuck, some people who are not in the royal family also have that name, but if you’re not royal it has to be spelled Wangchuk, without a c.

Second random fact: there are two pizza shops in Chamkhar! One is called Himalayan Pizza, and one is called Bumthang Pizza, and us students are pretty divided about which is better. Bumthang Pizza has a nice upstairs room with couches where we like to hang out, but the pizza sauce is really sweet and not as good as the sauce at Himalayan. However…. Himalayan pizza is square, but the sauce seems more fresh, with chunks of tomato, and it’s not as sweet. So, we haven’t decided yet which is better.

Apparently a lot of the small handicrafts and gifts sold here, like jewelry, prayer flags, prayer wheels, painted rocks, and notebooks, are made in Nepal because it’s cheaper to make them there and ship them here. But there is a Bhutanese paper that is manufactured in Thimphu that is made out of Daphne, which is a plant that you can find in Bumthang!

Bhutan is basically a welfare state, so as long as you can get to a hospital, all the treatment is free. We learned this when we went to the Wangdicholing Hospital to learn about rabies.

There is actually a gym in Bumthang, which we all think is very weird given that many people here do farm, everybody lives at 10,000 feet, and there are lots of tall mountains that you can hike. The gym is called Bumthang Fitness Club, and we’ve been curious about it the entire time we’ve been at UWICE. Last week, finally, a few of us decided to check it out with one of our Bhutanese staff, Rinchen. And it’s actually a gym with weights, machines, and a ridiculous amount of protein powder. You can get individual or couple rates, and the man who owns it has a lot of members (although the numbers fluctuate, with more people joining during the summer). He is also going to open up a building with hot stone baths soon, which is a Bhutan specialty.

But – a bunch of the students have created our own gym, called the SFS gym, which takes place on our basketball court most afternoons between the end of class and dinner. We have stones that we use as weights, and we get pretty creative with the exercises we do, given that we have no materials and it’s a concrete floor. But it’s still a good workout!

There are not many other international students in Bhutan, but we’ve actually met quite a few. All of them live and study in Thimphu, at Royal Thimphu College (RTC), which is the first private college in the country. Some of them have enrolled directly at RTC, and others are studying there through a program with Wheaton College (which was also founded by Mary Lyon!). We met some of the direct enrollment students on Sunday, when we went to the opening of a Gross National Happiness Center in Bumthang, and we met the Wheaton College students in Chamkhar (at our favorite coffee shop – Café Perk) while they were traveling around the country during their fall break. They were desperate to find some cake (#randomcravingsinSouthAsia) but settled for brownies instead. (We still haven’t been able to find real cake.)

That’s all for now – hope you enjoy and have a better sense of Bhutan!

The Trek

I’m back! Quite literally back at UWICE after a four day trek (three nights camping) in Bumthang. We walked many miles, over mountains and ridges, through fields and meadows and villages, and many days accompanied by dogs who had stayed at our campsite the night before.

We just got back a few hours ago, and I haven’t uploaded my photos yet, but I will soon and publish them in a separate post. So here I’ll give you a written overview of what each day was like.

Overall, it was more “glamping” than camping. Meaning – those who couldn’t hike because of injuries still joined us by driving in the van with Lobsang, and met up with us every night at the campsite. We were also joined by some of the kitchen staff, who helped set up tents and prepared delicious food for us, which was such a luxury. Most of us had already done some kind of camping/trekking/backpacking before, and this was way more glamorous than any of us were used to or expecting. We were very spoiled! The walking was still hard, but that was pretty much our only job, which felt weird to some of us. But it was a really fantastic experience. We slept in beautiful places, under the stars, and drank hot chocolate and milk tea around a roaring bonfire every night.

Here it goes –

Day 1: An easy day of hiking – no elevation climb, and it only took about three hours to get from the drop-off point to our campsite. We camped at a flat spot which was completely surrounded by tall, steep peaks. From my journal: “A bunch of us love Lord of the Rings and we’re joking that we’re in Middle Earth – it makes the trek so much more epic! We’ve decided that right now we’re at Weathertop because near the campsite there’s a hill with some ruins from a battle between Bhutanese and Tibetan warriors. We’ve also decided that pretending to be in Middle Earth makes everything seem easier because we’re never being chased by/chasing orcs, and we’re not dealing with Gollum, intense forest elves, or Frodo struggling with the ring.”

Day 2: It was a very long day, but exhilarating. We hiked up a ridge and down into Tang valley (from Jakar valley) and had lunch near the top in a fantastically sunny field filled with bugs who were happy to share our lunch with us. We then hiked through meadows filled with tall grasses and charismatic cows, a picturesque village where people spoke Bumthap to us, and along a dirt road that brought us to our campsite. From my journal: “I think I went through every trick and thought possible to keep me going, especially while pulling myself up the mountain. Sometimes I walked in a group and played 20 Questions (that sometimes turned into Unlimited Questions), and other times I walked by myself, which turned out to be better during the really hard parts, like when we were hiking straight up a stream bed. I also found that picturing myself in movies was inspiring and helpful. LOTR was one of those movies, of course, and we pretended we were hiking through the Misty Mountains. I also imagined I was in Jurassic Park sometimes, which felt really cool. Finally, when nothing else was helping, I realized I felt a lot like Alan Rabinowitz, trekking through Bhutan in search of tigers in my Panthera hat. That was closest to home, obviously, and actually the most exciting!

Day 3: We got a late start (10am) and walked through Tang valley and up one of the ridges to get to Ashi Kunzang Choden‘s house, who is the mother of our Culture of Bhutan professor and the first female Bhutanese novelist to be published! She is a very inspiring women, who showed us around her manor house (the family is religious nobility, descended from Dorji Lingpa, son of Pema Lingpa), which they have turned into a museum (which is AWESOME, and feels so immediate and evocative of rural Bhutanese life). She also gave us a lecture on the role of women in Bhutan, which was fascinating.

Day 4: Today we walked many miles through Tang valley, along gravel roads and forest paths. We ended our trek at Burning Lake, where, in the 15th century, the Bhutanese saint Pema Lingpa discovered Buddhist treasures put there by Guru Rinpoche in the 8th century. We then returned to UWICE, where we all thoroughly enjoyed hot showers. Dinner soon!

The Hike to Tharpaling Monastery

On Sunday, October 4th most of us went on a hike to Tharpaling Monastery, which is on the ridge right behind the UWICE campus. It was a beautiful day for it – not too hot and not raining. We climbed straight up the mountain for about 2.5-3 hours (depending on how fast your particular group walked, as we were all spread out), through many vegetation zones, including rhododendron and dwarf bamboo. Eventually we reached the ridge, which was covered in prayer flags. Some people climbed up to the real peak, which was fairly close to the ridge, but a steep climb, some went downhill to a statue of Buddha, and others climbed down the other side of the ridge to the monastery itself.

On the ridge, we ate our snacks of Thai tomato/potato chips, Cadbury chocolate, and an apple with a view of two valleys, Jakar and Chummey. Everyone agreed that the view made the hike well worth it.

From Thursday to Sunday of this week we will all be going on a trek through the cultural sites of Bumthang. Everyone is very excited about it, and there are sure to be lots of campfires, 10-mile hikes, layers of clothing, and card games at night. But for now, enjoy the photos from our hike yesterday!

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The UWICE Campus: Part I

Welcome to a tour of my Bhutan home! I’m going to split this post into two because there are a lot of photos. Enjoy!

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My beautiful tall-ceiling, hardwood floor room with classical Bhutanese windows.

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There are many stray dogs on campus, and we’ve named this one Harrison. He spends a lot of time outside our classroom building and is most peoples’ favorite.

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There are so many moths and butterflies on campus, and unfortunately this one died, but it is so beautiful that I had to take a picture.

Tsechu

Kuzuzampola!

Last Thursday, we all went to a local tsechu, which is a traditional Bhutanese festival and dance. The tsechu was at Tamzhing Monastery, which is one of the oldest and most important monasteries in Bhutan. It was founded by the only Bhutanese (not Tibetan) saint, Pema Lingpa (1450-1521). In March 2012, the monastery was submitted for inclusion on the list of World Heritage Sites, and it is currently on the tentative list.

Enjoy (below) the pictures of us preparing for the tsechu (getting dressed up in our kiras) and the dances! What a beautiful day it was!

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A sweet stray puppy that was sleeping at my feet while I watched the tsechu dances.

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A clown with a skeleton mask dancing.

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